Issues and Trends in Korean Eco-Literature

Editor's Note

Eco-literature caught on in Korea in the nineties, replacing the literatures of division and labor. It denounces potential hazards, including nuclear proliferation, ozone layer depletion, climate change, and pollution, that pose a threat both to the environment and to the human race, while displaying nostalgia for life within the embrace of undisturbed nature. The following article sums up discussions about eco-literature in Korea within the broad framework of Green, Life, and Environment Literatures. 

Korean Eco-criticism took off with the publication of “Toward a Literary Ecology,” an article by Kim Seong-Kon in the winter issue of Foreign Literature in 1990. Subsequently, the discussion about eco-literature in Korea branched into Green Literature, Life Literature, and Environmental Literature. Academics have written several in-depth papers on eco-literature and have compiled the results of their research as books, notable among which are Lee Nam-ho’s Green Literature (Minumsa, 1998), Kim Wook Dong’s Toward a Literary Ecology: Green Theory and Literature (Minumsa, 1998), Kim Yong-min’s Ecological Literature: Toward an Alternative Society (Book World, 2003), Kim U-chang’s A Heartfelt Study of Ecology: Moving Beyond Anthropocentricism (Gimm-Young Publishers, 2014); and compilations like Path to a Green Life (Poetry and People, 1997) and Path to a Green Life II (Poetry and People, 2001), both edited by Shin Duk-Ryong. Researchers of eco-literature founded the “Association for the Study of Literature & Environment” in 2001, and have continuously published articles in its journal, Literature and Environment, ever since. Their writings were compiled and published as the first volume of a scholarly series, The Environmental Crisis and Literature (Hakgobang, 2015).

     As I look at the discussions carried out in eco-writing in Korea, let us first look at Green Literature. Lee Nam-ho defines Green Literature as “literature that pursues, realizes, and promotes in its own way the values and aesthetics of Green Ideology” (Green Literature, Minumsa, 1998). Here, Green Ideology refers to literature that can “surmount the destruction wreaked by humans on nature and help us to live in harmony with nature through a political, economic, social, and cultural revolution,” and “aim for a life that respects and follows the values, order, and aesthetics inherent in nature.” Lee says that “humans and nature are one, and literature is inherently green because at the root of all writing is a respect for nature’s innate value and hidden order.” In Toward a Literary Ecology: Green Theory and Green Literature (Minumsa, 1998), Kim Wook Dong defines Green Literature as literature that contributes to overcoming the ecological crisis by awakening our ecological consciousness. Kim considers both Green Literature and Ecological Literature to be the same and uses the terms Ecological Literature and Literary Ecology interchangeably. He says, “If Deep Ecology is the application of ecological theory to philosophy, and Social Ecology is its application to sociology, then Literary Ecology is the application of ecological theory to literature,” and that Literary Ecology is an “acceptance of the basic spirit of ecological studies and giving it shape in literature.”

     Next, let us examine the discourse on Life Literature. Life Literature grew out of the perception that we need to face these dehumanizing times where the culture of killing rules supreme and human life is marred by the destruction of the natural ecology. It developed chiefly from the ideas and literature of Kim Ji-ha. In “Toward Life Poetics” from Path to a Green Life (Ed. Shin Duk-Ryong, 1997), Nam Song-woo urges us to formulate a life poetics that is oriented toward “seeking the essence and meaning of life and its value through the song of life” and “overcome elements that pose a threat to life or are anti-life.” He categorizes Life Poetry into “poetry that deals with life,” “poetry that talks about awareness of life through green imagery,” and “poetry that enhances our awareness of life through the dream of new birth.” Nam’s ideas about overcoming the culture of dehumanization and destruction through an awareness of life are in sync with ecological perspectives. In “The Character of Life Poetry and Poetic Imagination” from Path to a Green Life II (2001), Shin Duk-Ryong says that we need “a new world view that sees all life forms, including humans, and all inanimate objects as part of a whole” and counts the awareness of life as fundamental to life itself. He says that “the definition of life needs to be expanded into a concept that covers all organic and inorganic matter in our universe.” Based on this insight, Shin defines Life Poetry as “poetry t...